Technology intelligence

August 1, 1999

A letter to the newspaper editor regarding a local bus crash got me thinking about the expectations we have for technology. Sometimes they are unrealistic. A tour bus collided with another vehicle and began to smolder. Propane tanks mounted on the back of the bus meant that the dazed and injured had to be rescued immediately. The letter writer called 911 on his cell phone only to hear, "Your call cannot be completed as dialed." That was followed by, "All circuits are busy; please try your call later."

The 911 answering machine then kept the caller at bay until the dispatcher came on to say that they already knew about the accident. Alas, it was a different accident — more delay. The telecommunications system fiddled while the bus burned. It took 12 minutes for the fire department to arrive but some heroic bystanders jumped in to save all the passengers and the driver. The writer lamented that years ago, someone would have sprinted to a call box at the end of the block and pulled the handle; the emergency apparatus would have rolled right then.

His point was that the old ways were better. Cell phones do not work all the time and drivers using them inappropriately do cause some accidents — but thousands of people have been saved in critical situations because a cell phone was available. When technology doesn't work perfectly there is the tendency to knock it. This is understandable, but pilots, being discerning individuals, need to learn what the equipment can and cannot do.

I have used my cell phone on more than one occasion, sitting at the end of a rainy and remote runway, when ATC had somehow misplaced my IFR flight plan. The controller was busy and would not enter a flight plan into the system. So I was told to call flight service and work it out. In the old days that would have meant taxiing back to the ramp, shutting down, and finding a telephone with which to refile. Under the best of circumstances at least 20 minutes would have been chewed up. With the cell phone I called from the run-up pad and was back to a very surprised controller in less than five minutes. That alone was worth the monthly service fee. Incidentally, a few downed pilots have been found after using their cell phone to call for help when the ELT failed to operate.

Now let's look at some other technology. Some aviation purists prefer the old ways. They fly old airplanes and are great stick-and-rudder artists. Short fields, grass runways, and crosswinds allow these pilots to demonstrate their superior ability to tame tailwheel aircraft. Yet, many of them carry a handheld GPS that reduces navigation to the push of a few buttons. Why? Because it reduces the burden and uncertainty in cross-country navigation.

On a recent flight back from Sugarbush, Vermont — where I had gone to gain some perspective from Captain Bob Buck, a veteran of this aviation century — I was reflecting on the paradox of technology. The day before, I had flown with Buck in a glider over the mountains learning about lift and thermals, remembering that my feet were a part of the equation in balanced flight. There was a piece of yarn taped to the outside center of the canopy. It showed every yaw transgression — very low-tech and very effective. The sailplane had only a few instruments — airspeed, compass, vertical speed — and the essential controls. It was back to the basics of flight. But there was a GPS receiver; some of the sailplanes based at Sugarbush are also equipped with VHF radios and transponders. On a really good day when the mountain waves are honking, they can enter Class A airspace where com gear and a clearance are required. The glider folk are as enthusiastic about GPS as powered-airplane pilots.

There is a company, Cambridge Aero Institute, that is even producing a GPS unit that estimates whether the glider can make it back to home base or needs to go to an alternate airport before running out of altitude. This could cut down the instances of off-airport landings and the resultant inconvenience and risk of damage. It might be considered a fuel gauge for gliders. However, there will still be off-airport landings, so don't give up the shoulder harnesses yet.

My flight home was GPS direct from Sugarbush to Frederick, Maryland. There was no need to find and fly over multiple VORs. It was easy to avoid the congestion around those areas of confluence. There were no wasted dog-legs — just pure transportation utility. The nearest airport was available at the touch of a button as was distance, ETA, winds aloft — everything you could want. With the cost of these units coming down each year, the need for navigation skills shrinks.

There is still a responsibility for knowing what to do if the unit fails. I've only had one GPS receiver pack it in, but the batteries do go dead in handhelds. However, there may come a time when we have multiple redundancy and the odds of failure are so small that it isn't a major consideration — we're not there yet but the time may come.

The consequences of GPS blind faith are well documented. NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System files and the FAA enforcement dockets are full of cases in which pilots wandered into airspace where communication is not only encouraged, it is required. Some pilots have blown through restricted airspace cheerfully following GPS to the destination. Sorry, but "a number from god" Garmin, Apollo, Northstar, et al. won't cut it with the judge.

You've probably heard that automotive insurance companies are not quite as enamored with antilock brakes as in the past. It's not that they don't perform, but the brakes haven't lowered insurance costs as much as the companies had hoped. Tailgating drivers have reduced their following distances from the absurd to the insane, believing that antilock technology will save them. They have adapted to technology by reducing the margins. This doesn't enhance safety.

In an aviation vein, there are cases where VFR pilots used GPS attempt to maneuver through weather that was not good enough for VFR flight. The GPS did not improve the visibility, nor did it raise the ceiling. It just navigated the flight directly and precisely to the point of impact. Of course, it's up to pilots to use the tools intelligently. Use a hammer to drive nails or hit your thumb — the tool is the same. On many of my Piper Cub cross-countries, there were times where my exact or even the general location was somewhat in doubt. Good landmarks and decent visibility were highly prized. Pilotage is an inexact science and it requires effort. I can understand how one could be seduced to the dark side by knowing, without ground reference, exactly how far they were from West Nowhere and all the surrounding airports.

There are other boxes in the panel that pilots trust too much. A few of us know someone who uses the autopilot to keep them alive. My acquaintance was a successful gentleman who kept a pristine Bonanza for trips to his beach house about an hour's flight away. He was not instrument-rated but always managed to get out and back, despite grubby weather. Did he maintain one mile and clear of clouds in uncontrolled airspace? Doubtful, but no one could prove it and he always managed to land on his feet. The autopilot made it possible. It was a risky operation with all the marbles dependant on one piece of gear. In an upcoming column we'll look at an accident that had a similar background.

It will be years before the statistics are clear on whether "foolproof" navigation and flight control systems really do help, or whether fools become more technically ingenious. What is true is that more flights will be successfully completed in marginal weather and some pilots will get caught. Perfection in technology, be it cell phones or avionics, is still elusive.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.